‘House Gods’ goes beyond materials, designs of Navajo buildings

“House Gods” by Jim Kristoffic

Jim Kristofic came to Taos with the idea to help people on the Navajo reservation. This may seem that Kristific is confused about New Mexico geography.

He isn’t confused. He is in fact a cut-through-the-fog thinker and author.

“There are not a lot of passive solar buildings on the reservation and the people who live there don’t have them. I knew that Taos had that knowledge,” Kristofic said in a phone interview.

His initial intention with “House Gods” was to expose the Navajos to the possibilities of sustainable building techniques and at the same time reduce the footprint of buildings on the environment. Kristofic was raised on the reservation at Ganado, Arizona.

“I could spend $30,000 to $40,000 and get a degree in building design, or I could move to Taos and just do it,” he added.

Kristific did indeed move there. He spent five years researching and writing “House Gods.” It is based on his interviews – and apprenticeships – with a handful of the renegade builders of Taos, Mora and Rio Arriba counties.

Jim Kristoffic

The book’s essays make for lively reading. These builders explain how they use the sun and gravity, how they wield a sledgehammer to compact earth into tires, arrange straws into bales, and compress earth into bags.

The essays aren’t just about building materials and designs. Woven into Kristofic’s informative essays are glimpses of the personal lives of the builders, descriptions of dramatic landscapes, of surviving extreme cold, of relationships with rescued canines, of a look at the history of Adobe and of the Navajo world view.

These brief sidebars are well-integrated into the essays.

The first essay is about builder Willy Groffman. He lives in the rural community of Los Hueros near Ocate in Mora County.

Kristofic said an impetus for the book’s focus grew out of a chance meeting with Groffman in 2014, just prior to the Taos screening of a documentary film. Groffman’s passive solar construction techniques were spotlighted in the film.

Groffman introduces Kristofic to his greenhouse with its large water barrels along the south wall, catching photons shooting through the windows and heating the water inside the barrels. The thick east and west walls are made of adobe mud and cordwood.

A fireplace of cobblestones in his home acts as a heat sink.

The informal writing style makes the reader feel at home. For example, Groffman invites the author into the greenhouse, quoting Groffman as saying, “Come on into my church. This is where I come to worship the sun … This is where I get inspired. I build to the sun.”

Kristofic refers to Groffman’s changing facial expressions: “Sometimes you’ll think you’re looking at a Roman general emerging from a wax death mask, talking the truth from the fields of Elysium …”

Other times, Kristofic wrote, “… his grin will pull back his tight, wrinkled face and you’ll hear his thick Norte accent and swear you’re talking to an old cabron whose roots go back into the land.” Still other times, Groffman will tilt his face “and wink a dopey smile that reminds you that you’re also talking to a wise-ass Jewish kid” who escaped Chicago’s South Side.

The one essay that departs from the book’s theme is “Solstice of Cruelty.” It’s about a shamanic New Buffalo (Winter) Solstice Re-Awakening ceremony. (The New Buffalo was a Taos area commune established in the 1960s.)

Kristofic observed the ceremony’s attendees: “I’m in a room of hippies with hip replacements and now I’m going to meet a spirit animal.”

The book takes its title from the House God, or Calling God, who lives at the door of the hogan, or of any house, the prologue states.

The House God represents strength, wisdom, good health and integrity. The House Gods of the book are the builders.

Kristofic is an English teacher at Taos High School.


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